Vocation Revisited, Part 2: Vocation and Privilege

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here.

Anita: Dr. Davis, you’ve said that vocation-talk is a privilege. Would you be willing to say more about that?

Stacy: I was thinking about vocation-talk as privilege because, for better and for worse, I think it is class-based. This year is a case in point. So many folks have delayed college because of covid-related financial issues. And the reality is that delaying college makes it less likely that you will go. These are young people whose idea of the good life may have to completely shift, because they need to work to take care of their families. I think one of my main complaints when I was younger about vocation is its connection to work. Sometimes we do not take a job because we want it (so many summers as a secretary) but because we need to eat. Hitting closer to home, even though I’m now in whatever the middle class is supposed to be, I was raised working-class and still strongly associate with that. It almost seems decadent to talk about vocation, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to do so.

This reminds me of Faith Adiele’s introduction to Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, when she suggests that taking a year to study abroad is an “indulgent [endeavor]” (27). {You can find a review of the book here.} Thinking out loud, however, I realize that this semester I had several students who were struggling, and one of the things we talked about was how to ask for help and how as first-gen students (they all were) we do not always know what we need to know. So, while I don’t know what they should do with their lives, I at least knew that failing my class would make that harder. So, maybe it is time for me to own my privilege.

Romona: Privilege is such a hot-button word right now, and it’s worth recovering; it’s not just an evil word that has been stamped onto White people. You can recover it in its original context. For teachers, it’s a privilege to be in a classroom to influence students’ thoughts about vocation, to think about what career you want. But what will you do with your privilege? Will you let it dictate how you act in the classroom, or recognize the honor and privilege it is to be an influence in this season of students’ lives? Recognizing that privilege is a great thing, but you also need to recognize that yours isn’t the only voice they’ll hear—you’re working with them for only so many hours a semester, and that’s a very small piece of the history of their lives; they’re making crucial life decisions, but those aren’t the only crucial life decisions they’ll make. Teachers need to be bold enough to recognize that, for instance, an older White woman might have more power to speak than an untenured person of color. So walk with humility and caution, because if you’re in a position of social privilege everything you say can be taken more seriously and have more weight.

As a student, I also took into consideration my professors’ character, who they were in and out of the classroom. That doesn’t lock teachers in so that they can never do anything wrong, but it does mean their humanity will show, and it’s important what they do when it does. If a mentor gives advice and I push back, that’s an opportunity for us to meet as human beings. A teacher or advisor may have years of experience, but I have other life experience and knowledge of my culture. So there’s much to be gained on both sides. If we start to meet that way, privilege becomes not White privilege but a privilege.

If a mentor gives advice and I push back, that’s an opportunity for us to meet as human beings. A teacher or advisor may have years of experience, but I have other life experience and knowledge of my culture.

Romona Bethany

Sophie: There’s a challenge for young adults coming into college thinking, “I just need to get a job” or “I need to find my spiritual vocation.” I think about this a lot with older folks, like my parents, saying that a degree isn’t worth anything—like “Is the philosophy factory hiring?”  I think it is important to attend to the amount of privilege that goes into majoring in something that doesn’t lead directly into a career. But people lose the perspective that it’s less important what the degree is than what your plan is: if you know how to market the degree, how to spin it, where you’re going with it.

Students also have to discern on a timeline; they might think, “I’d love to search my soul and connect with God over this, but I have to choose a major and put something on paper, because I can’t afford another year of college!” It’s important to keep in mind the physical reality of the spiritual life. Vocation may be a spiritual calling—finding where your hungers meet the world’s needs, as Buechner said—and it’s good to talk about that, when you’re in college you want to have a great cerebral discussion. But your vocation is a physical reality and some of it is going to be unpleasant, and you have to try to decide if that unpleasant part is worth it.

I was lucky my high school had programs where I could try things out. I wanted to help people, and I saw that the teachers around me helped people, so I worked in a classroom with my favorite English teacher from middle school. But the whole time I was with the kids, I didn’t want to teach them English. I noticed the kid who was learning English, and I wondered why he didn’t have resources to do that; he was just thrown into a class with students who knew English. That was how I moved myself more toward social work. Then in college I saw the documentary Thirteenth and I couldn’t think of anything else for two weeks. So all these questions cropped up that helped me discern where I would want to be.

When you enter college you’re aware of the career paths that were standard in your area. For me, everyone was a teacher, in the military, or an engineer—that’s all the careers there were! I think that’s the case for wherever you come from; you can name the three or four jobs everyone has. So when we introduce college students to vocation, we have to introduce them to actual career paths. They already know something about what they enjoy and want to dive into more deeply. Colleges have to give them ways to spend some time actually doing it, like I did with my high school program. Everyone loves an unpaid intern!

Romona: In the college bubble, you think you’re getting all the skills, all the resources you need. And there’s a whole community that’s waiting for you to expose yourself to what’s outside the bubble, outside that context. As a South Bend girl, I knew the city’s resources right away. But that doesn’t click that way for students who aren’t from there.

Stacy: I think there is a certain privilege in talking about the meaning of life that is based on race, gender, and comfort level, and I have to choose my privileges carefully. I typically use them up in teaching about race and gender and religious bias, and that does not leave me space for other things. As a result, I spend time recommending the Center for Spirituality for students that need that extra help, or talking privately with students who ask me questions (and they do). But I honestly do not have classroom space for much else. 

Click here for a curated list of blog posts about race, class, gender, and privilege.


A former high-school teacher and parish lay minister, Anita Houck is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology and Joyce McMahon Hank Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She co-founded Saint Mary’s long-running program in vocation, Real Life Calling, and participated in the 2018-2019 NetVUE faculty workshop. Her research explores religion and humor, vocation and single life, and pedagogy. She teaches comparative theology, spirituality and comedy, and interfaith studies, and has received the College Theology Society’s Monika Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence. For other posts by Anita, click here.

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